BEIRUT: The bombshell offer of dialogue with members of the Syrian regime from the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, highlighted a stark divide between those favoring a political solution and those favoring a military solution to the two-year conflict.
The Syrian National Coalition politburo will meet in Cairo Thursday to iron out differences and finalize the group’s political vision and guidelines for the controversial talks.
But while intensive work is still under way on the next stage of the dialogue initiative, diplomats and opposition figures say it is being commandeered by opposition blocs and the states that support an armed resistance to try to topple President Bashar Assad.
“Qatar and Turkey are working to destroy the initiative,” an Arab diplomatic source close to the negotiations told The Daily Star, adding that there was even talk from some members of parachuting the formation of a government-in-exile – a move that would dampen dialogue hopes.
But, the source said, while Khatib may not survive the fallout, the initiative had “already achieved its objective.”
“It embarrassed the regime and got people who were not talking to talk.”
Khatib made his controversial offer of direct but conditional dialogue with the regime following President Bashar Assad’s Jan. 29 speech, in which he offered dialogue with the opposition, but not with any of those who support the armed revolt whom he called “slaves” to Western powers.
The move initially attracted stern rebuke from members of the coalition, who accused Khatib of acting outside the coalition charter and without the necessary consultation. The opposition, and Khatib’s own Syrian National Coalition, had vehemently opposed dialogue with Assad, whose departure they say is a precondition of any talks.
Qatari Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani expressed frustration at the international community’s failure to intervene in Syria, saying the U.N. Security Council is “directly responsible” for extending the bloodshed.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was also negative, saying, “Dialogue between the [Syrian] regime and the opposition will not produce a solution.”
After meetings between Khatib and senior officials from Assad’s most staunch supporters, Iran and Russia, in Munich, Khatib qualified his offer, giving a deadline for talks with Assad’s deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa. The coalition then threw its weight behind the initiative, announcing dialogue would be acceptable with any members of the regime “without blood on their hands.”
Ahead of the Cairo meeting, coalition members involved in the discussions say disagreements over dialogue still threaten to destroy the delicate coalition alliance, with some even pushing for a counterinitiative to torpedo the talks.
Kamal Labwani, an outspoken veteran dissident and member of the coalition who opposed Khatib’s offer told The Daily Star the coalition would discuss in Cairo an initiative to “jump to an exiled government.”
“ Qatar and Turkey, through their channels in the Muslim Brotherhood and the SNC [the Syrian National Council that was superseded by the coalition], sent orders to stop this initiative,” Labwani said.
“They won’t announce it themselves because they can’t say so directly to the U.S., but they are fighting Iran and there is no way that they will accept that they will live with members of the current regime.”
Qatar and Turkey have supported the rebels through arms and logistical support. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is close to Qatar, forms a powerful and influential bloc, dominant in the coalition.
“Indirect negotiation has already happened between Assad and the opposition through [U.N.- Arab league envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi and [former envoy] Kofi Annan. They failed,” Labwani said.
He advocated ongoing armament, saying the only way to topple Assad was militarily.
“We have already paid the price for revolution. It is war. Yes, we are tired but we do not give up.”
Senior coalition members put on a show of unity ahead of the Cairo meeting, suggesting that there was no contradiction between Khatib’s political strategy and plans to bolster the armed resistance.
The deputy controller of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, told The Daily Star that Khatib was not in breach of the coalition charter.
“There is no breach in the constitution because [Khatib] confirmed last week that dialogue would only take place with people not involved in the bloodshed. There was some ambiguity before. ... But there is no discord now,” he said via telephone from Cairo.
He denied that Qatar was against the proposal.
“In order to reach a political solution there is a need to influence the army by providing the rebels with weapons,” he continued. “Once the rebels have heavy weapons, the regime might consider them a force that ... they have to negotiate with.”
Rebels have made clear gains in the capital Damascus over the last two weeks, and taken a string of strategic institutions across the country, but are still outgunned by the Syrian Army.
Burhan Ghallioun, former head of the SNC, echoed Bayanouni.
“There are no divisions at all, we have exchanged different points of view in order to proceed with the initiative,” he said, adding that a military and political solution were not incompatible.
“On the contrary, Qatar says the rebels should be armed in order to have dialogue,” he said.
“We need to arm the rebels in order to force the regime to the table.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and visiting Arab League head Nabil Elaraby said Wednesday they were encouraged that both the Syrian government and the opposition had voiced readiness for dialogue.
“There have been signs of a positive tendency to start dialogue and both the government representatives and the opposition have begun speaking about this,” Lavrov told a joint news conference. “For now both sides still come up with preconditions but, according to our common view, once there is the key common readiness to start dialogue, then agreeing parameters for this process is just a matter of diplomatic art,” he said.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, renewed their call to arm the rebel forces. But that still appears far from likely.
The European Union extends its blanket arms embargo on Syria Monday, although it accepted a British proposal to allow the supply of “greater nonlethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.”
Moreover, an apparent change in direction from the United States under the new secretary of state bodes badly for rebel armament.
In marked contrast to his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who advocated controlled arming of select opposition groups in Syria, newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry has said his goal “is to see us have a negotiated outcome and minimize the violence.”
Amid rumors Kerry is planning to meet Khatib in his upcoming tour of the region, a State Department official told The Daily Star the U.S. “recognizes the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but I have no meetings to confirm at this time.”
Executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and Syrian opposition figure Radwan Ziadeh told The Daily Star Wednesday Khatib’s initiative was much more a test for Russia, the Iranians and the regime itself.
“But it also sent a message to the U.S. and the Friends of Syria that the Syrian people are tired,” he said.
“It sent a message that if the West cannot help then the Syrians have to look for another solution.
“No one in the Syrian opposition believes that anyone in the Syrian regime is interested in talks.
“The more important thing is that the Free Syrian Army is in a much ... stronger position ... In the next few weeks the FSA will be able to get inside Damascus and we might see a change in the Assad regime’s position.”